Combination Training — For The Best Of Both Worlds
by Mike Mahler
I often get e-mails from enthusiastic trainees looking for the Holy Grail of training programs. They're on a desperate search to find the best program imaginable, and then sail off in bliss to training Nirvana. If only it were that simple.
Having received the Holy Grail of programs, a trainee heads off to Training Nirvana.
There's no one best program, because no program will keep producing results forever. Eventually you'll adapt, and your body will become immune to whichever program you're on. At that point, you can either become a stimulus junkie, sticking with the program you're on even though it's not producing results, or you can wise up and switch to another program.
This is a hard concept to grasp when you're on a training program that's working really well. Even when progress slows or stops, many trainees find it hard to "break up" with their beloved programs. Just like being in a bad relationship, they look back to the time when the program was fresh and wonderful, ignoring the reality that it's just not working anymore. Don't be this trainee.
The goal of training is to make progress. Whether it's to lose fat, get stronger, build muscle, or a combination of all three, you have to focus on results. Just like clocking more hours at the office is no guarantee that you'll make more money, putting in more time at the gym is no guarantee that progress is imminent. You have to work smart, not just hard.
One option that works very well with training is to switch gears every three to four weeks. For example, do three weeks of high volume training, such as 10x10 (ten sets of ten). Next, switch to some moderate volume training with a higher intensity, such as 5x5. Finally, go to a low volume higher intensity program, in which training with maximum weights is the goal. While the concept sounds simple enough, it requires discipline to move from one program to the next.
You'll often be making great progress in week three as you get used to a program. Once you switch to a new program the first week or two are uncomfortable as you adapt both mentally and physically. Once you get used to the program, it's time to switch again. Rather than wait for the program to stall in week five or six, we stay one step ahead of the curve by switching gears before it's too late.
Sounds easy, right? Please. How many times have you stayed on a program way too long because it's comfortable? Hell, you're probably on a program right now that you've been on for months if not years and you wonder why you haven't made progress since 2002. No more! It's time to take charge of training and get smart.
Without further ado, here's what I propose. Rather than wait every three to four weeks to change a program, lets add some variety right off the bat, and then make moderate modifications each month. We'll start off the week with the 5x5 program as our high volume day. In the middle of the week we'll use a moderate training/higher intensity program such as 3x3, and at the end of the week we ramp up the intensity and apply a low volume program such as 1x6 per exercise.
The focus of this program is increasing overall strength. However, you can easily make it a size and strength program by ramping up the calories and ensuring your hormones are optimal (testosterone and growth hormone being the two most important ones). If fat loss is your goal then you're also in luck as the best way to combat fat is to build as much lean muscle as possible while keeping calories in check. Watch my Fat Loss DVD for more info.
While I don't think cardio is essential for fat loss, it can provide a nice boost and of course has many other health benefits. Thus get in two to three days of cardio on your off days for the active recovery benefits as well as the health benefits. No need to go overboard. Twenty minutes is plenty.
Next let's go over each day on the program and then go over some sample programs to get you into action.
I've written about the 5x5 program many times. No, there's nothing really magical about the program, and 5x4 or 5x6 would probably work just as well. It's simply a good solid program for strength and size. While the volume is not low, it's not super high either, and most trainees can handle it at least once a week. High volume training is very effective for building size and strength.
Here's how the 5x5 program works. Pick a weight for an exercise such as the barbell military press and do five sets of five reps with the same weight. Once you can do five sets of five with the same weight, add five pounds. Don't add five pounds if you don't nail all five sets with the same weight. For example, if you complete the first three sets and then get four reps on the fourth and three reps on the fifth set you don't get a pass to move up to the next weight. Stay where you're at and work on all five sets. Start with a weight that you could do eight reps with for a one-set max, and use that for week one. Sure, it'll feel somewhat light, and that's the point. Have a success in week one to build confidence and to get used to the program.
The 3x3 is a common rep and set scheme in powerlifting circles, and is a great way to build strength. Similar to the 5x5 program you're going to use the same weight on all three sets. When you can do three sets of three with the same weight, add five pounds.
Start off with a weight that you could do six reps with if you took it to your limit. Again, it'll feel somewhat light, and that's fine for week one. There'll be plenty of time to move into the heavier weights down the road. 3x3 is more of a strength program, and the moderate volume and lower reps will be a nice change of pace from the 5x5 program.
High Intensity Training
High intensity training, otherwise known as HIT, is very controversial. People either think it's the greatest training program ever, or they think it's the the bubonic plague of the training world. Here's how it works: pick a weight for an exercise and knock out the reps until you hit your limit, then stop the set when you can no longer continue in good form. Here's where it gets tricky. Many HIT proponents recommend that you go for another rep no matter what. This often results in a sloppy final rep which is a great way to get injured or simply induce central nervous system burnout.
When you overload your body with too much intensity, you break it down to a point that you can't recover adequately. The end result is you feel weaker at each workout and have to apply more effort and force to get the job done. The brain is a very important component of training. Once the CNS gets fatigued, the muscles are no longer recruited in the most efficient manner, and strength goes down the drain.
Thus, we need to make sure we apply the right dose of HIT. It's certainly not something to be done more than once a week for most trainees, and rather than miss the last rep of each exercise, stop at your limit. In other words, if you've completed five reps and don't know for sure that you can nail the sixth rep, stop at five. Never end a set with sloppy form.
You may be wondering why HIT is even in the program if the probability is high for CNS burnout and overtraining. If you never push yourself to your limit, you'll never know what you're capable of, and you'll never learn how to push yourself when things get hard. The problem with people who train in HIT style all of the time is they push though no matter what. In other words, even if they're having an off day and are feeling weaker, they train to failure when they would've been better off doing a light day, or not training at all.
Alternatively, trainees who never train to their limits often give up when the set gets hard. In other words, when they get to a hard rep with a sticking point, instead of pushing through they automatically give up, as they have been trained to always be fresh and to never train to failure. As a result, they miss out on some tremendous strength opportunities as well as mental toughness conditioning.
The bottom line is that HIT has a place in an effective training regimen from time to time and shouldn't be overlooked. Just don't get attached to the stimulus aspect of HIT which tends to be addictive for people who are stimulus addicts in other areas of life. Many trainees feel that they didn't have a good workout if they're not wiped out after a training session. Again, they focus on the wrong aspect of training. You want to focus on something measurable such as strength to track your progress.
The Combination Program Setup
Alright, we know what programs we're going to combine for the combination program, now let's talk about how to set it up. The program is going to call for three weight-training workouts per week. For simplicity, Monday-Wednesday-Friday will be the choice for this article. Yes, you can do it on Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday. You can even take an extra day off between each workout or some of the workouts if necessary. However, don't do two workouts in a row. These are full body workouts, and you need a break between each session.
Generally, Monday is the day that you'll be most energetic. Sure, it's back to the grind at your lame job, but you had a chance to rest up over the weekend and should be ready to start off with a great workout to get your training week going. The 5x5 program is the most demanding work capacity wise due to the volume. The last thing you want to do is leave it until the end of the week when energy levels are generally lower.
The 3x3 program is going to go on Wednesday, and will be a welcome change from the 5x5 program. The 3x3 program is moderate volume and pretty high intensity, but not too high if you avoid training to failure on each set. Finally, we're going to save the HIT day for Friday. Yes, the HIT program is intense, but the volume is low and the workout should go pretty fast given that you're only doing one set per exercise.
Moreover, people tend to be more upbeat on Friday as they get ready for the weekend. Thus, use the adrenaline from the celebration of the end of another workweek, and apply it to the intense yet brief workout. Finally, you get to take two days off after the HIT day, so you'll have plenty of time to recover from the intense work.
This guy has already got his next two "recovery" days planned out.
Okay, now that you have a clear idea of what the combination program is all about, lets go over a sample regimen for you to put into action right away.
A1: Standing Barbell Military Press
A2: Weighted Pull-up or Lat Pulldown
Do a set of A1, rest one minute, then do a set of A2. Rest one minute, then do another set of A1. Continue in this fashion until all of the sets have been completed.
B1: Barbell Deadlift
B2: Hanging Leg Raise
Same as A1 and A2 above.
At first glance the program looks pretty easy. Trust me, it's not. There's a reason why you only do a few exercises. The volume adds up quickly, and when it does fatigue will become a factor. Thus, we want to focus on compound exercises that will provide the greatest benefit. Forget about isolation work: don't major in minor things. Compound exercises such as deadlifts and standing military presses will do more for your overall strength and physique enhancement than curls and pushdowns.
Regarding the exercise selection, standing presses and weighted pull-ups result in a complete upper body workout. Every muscle in the upper body is hit including the chest and it's done in a very efficient manner. Don't add any other exercises. For the lower body portion, we'll focus on the barbell deadlift. The deadlift works the quads and hamstrings and is a strenuous exercise, which is why we're pairing it with hanging leg raises. Hanging leg raises aren't too strenuous, and will help loosen up the lower back, which often gets tight from deadlifting.
A1: Incline barbell press
A2: Barbell bent-over row
Do a set of A1, rest 90 seconds, then do a set of A2. Rest ninety seconds, then do another set of A1. Continue in this fashion until all of the sets have been completed.
B1: Barbell full squat
B2: Double dumbbell swing or barbell Romanian deadlift
Same as A1 and A2 above
For the 3x3 workout, we're going to focus on using more weight for building more strength than the 5x5 day. The incline press is a great exercise that combines the benefits of the bench press and the military press. Great exercise for sitting back and loading up the weight as much as possible. The barbell bent over row is a powerhouse exercise for the back, and balances out the pressing from the incline press. Many trainees make the mistake of doing way too much pressing and not enough pulling.
To build serious strength for the lower body, of course we'll do the barbell squat. Don't stop at parallel, go rock bottom or as far as you can. Leg master Tom Platz, well known for his ridiculously huge legs, spent a lot of time in the squat rack. He focused on full squats, knocking off over twenty reps with 500 pounds! All you have to do are a few sets of three, so go heavy with solid form and get the job done.
We'll balance the squats with double dumbbells swings for the hamstrings. This is an explosive move that really works the hamstrings and all of the other areas that you can't see in the mirror known as the posterior chain. If you're not familiar with the swing, do dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts instead. If you're not familiar with that, look it up, or get a trainer to show you how to do it.
Dumbell swings work the anti-mirror muscles.
Thank God it's Friday! The good news is, you're only doing one set per exercise. The bad news is, you're doing one very hard set per exercise. Oh well, the workout will be over in less than a half hour and you can celebrate a great week of training at happy hour. Do a few warm-up sets for each exercise before going for the "money set." Warming up is an individual thing and in many ways is more of a confidence builder than anything else. No need to do an excessive amount of reps. Just get warm and ready to go. To illustrate, here's a sample warm-up for a barbell deadlift set of 315 for 10 reps:
135x5, 225x5, 275x3, 315x10
The last thing you want to do is waste energy and build fatigue on warm up sets. Get it done and move on to the money set. Here's a sample HIT workout:
Barbell floor press 1x6
Barbell bent-over row 1x6
Standing dumbbell military press 1x5
Lat pulldown or weighted pull-up 1x5
Barbell squat 1x8
Barbell Romanian deadlift 1x6
Keep the rep range between six and twelve. Start with a weight that will take you to your limit at rep six. Work on taking that weight to twelve reps over time. When you can complete twelve reps, add five pounds.
The order of the exercises is up to you. Some trainees like to do Squats and deadlifts at the beginning of the workout in order to get the most strenuous exercises out of the way early in the workout. Others find that the upper body exercises have a tonic effect and ramp up focus for the harder exercises. Experiment and find out what works for you.
Also, you may find that you're better off with fewer exercises such as:
Barbell military press 1x6
Barbell bent-over row 1x6
Barbell deadlift 1x6
More than likely you'll have some days in which you can handle all of the exercises and others in which you want to scale things back and focus on a few exercises. The more you train the more instinctive you'll become on what is the best plan of action for each workout. Often you'll have to make mid course corrections at the beginning of a workout rather than being stubborn and following the plan no matter what.
There it is! A training program that has variety built in through out the week. You'll start off with some reasonably high volume and moderate intensity at the beginning of the week to get things moving. In the middle of the week up are going to ramp up the intensity and lower the volume. Finally at the end of the week when you're ready for the weekend you're going to have an intense, yet brief workout to round out the program. Lets end with some frequently asked questions:
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How long should I stay on the program?
A: Stick with the sample program for four weeks. Then take a back-off week in which you go through the program using 80% of the weight that you would normally use. On the back off week, don't train to your limit on the HIT day. Stop several reps short. When you resume training, make a few modifications.
For example, instead of doing 5x5 on Day 1, do 5x6. Instead of doing 3x3 on Wednesday, try 2x3 or 3x2 with heavier weights. On Friday, change some of the exercises. For example, do dumbbell floor presses instead of barbell floor presses. You don't have to make dramatic changes ever four weeks, but you should make some changes to keep things fresh.
Q: Where do I fit cardio in?
A: Do some moderate cardio on off days two to three times per week. 20-30 minute sessions are plenty so don't go crazy with cardio. Some moderate sessions will help with workout recovery but it's easy to go to far and get counter productive results.
Q: Is this program good for size or strength?
A: Every size program should have a focus on strength. Why would you want to get bigger without getting stronger? If you keep your calories in check, this program can easily be a strength program in which hypertrophy is minimal or non-existent. To induce hypertrophy, simply increase the calories with quality food and get a good amount of sleep every night (no less than eight hours of deep sleep). Finally, hypertrophy has a great deal to do with ideal Testosterone and Growth hormone levels. If both are low, forget about getting bigger. For more info the importance of optimizing hormones, get my e-book.
Q: How do I maximize workout recovery?
A: Resist the urge to add more work to the program. Leaving a workout feeling energized and empowered is a strong sign that you just completed a productive workout. Next, get in a power nap after each workout. Thirty minutes will get the job done. I like to listen to the Holosync meditation program during this time. Make sure you have a protein shake after each workout with 25-35 grams of protein and 40-60 grams of carbohydrates. Reduce workout-induced inflammation with systemic enzymes such as Vitalzym. Finally, get a solid sports massage every two weeks minimum. Every week is better if you can afford it.
Mike Mahler is a kettlebell instructor and strength coach based in Las Vegas, NV. Mike has been into strength training for over ten years and has enjoyed test driving a variety of training systems over the years.
In addition to his highly in-demand workshops, mike has authored three best-selling kettlebell training DVDs and two best-selling kettlebell training e-books, and has published over eighty articles for publications such as Testosterone, Muscle & Fitness, Men's Fitness, Hardcore Muscle, Planet Muscle, Ironman, Ironman Japan, Industry Magazine, and Exercise Magazine For Men. He has also been featured in Muscle & Fitness, UPN News, and CBS News. Find out more about Mike at his website.
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